Everyone has habits, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Some are pretty useful — maybe you lay out your clothes for work the night before or automatically turn off the lights when you leave a room.
But other habits, such as biting your nails, drinking caffeine too late in the day, or hitting snooze too many times, might not be so beneficial.
Breaking unwanted habits can be difficult, especially if you’ve been engaging in them for a long time. But understanding how habits form in the first place can ease the process.
The making of a habit
There are a few theories around how habits develop. The idea of the 3 Rs is one of the main ones:
- Reminder. This is a trigger, or cue, that could be a conscious behavior, such as flushing the toilet, or a feeling, such as nervousness.
- Routine. This is the behavior associated with the trigger. Flushing the toilet cues you to wash your hands, while feeling nervous triggers biting your nails. Doing something over and over can make the behavior routine.
- Reward. The reward associated with a behavior also helps make a habit stick. If you do something that causes enjoyment or relieves distress, the pleasurable release of dopamine in your brain can make you want to do it again.
With the idea of the 3 Rs in mind, here are 15 tips to help you break that old, stubborn habit.
Remember, triggers are the first step in developing a habit. Identifying the triggers behind your habitual behaviors is the first step in moving past them.
Spend a few days tracking your habit to see whether it follows any patterns.
Note things like:
- Where does the habitual behavior happen?
- What time of day?
- How do you feel when it happens?
- Are other people involved?
- Does it happen right after something else?
Let’s say you want to stop staying up past midnight. After a few days of tracking your behavior, you realize you tend to stay up later if you start watching TV or chatting with friends after dinner. But you go to bed earlier if you read or take a walk.
You decide to stop watching TV and turn off your phone by 9 p.m. on weeknights. Removing the trigger — watching TV or talking to friends — makes it harder to carry out the routine of staying up too late.
Why do you want to break or change a certain habit?
Take a few minutes to consider why you want to break the habit and any benefits you see resulting from the change. Listing these reasons may help you think of a few that hadn’t occurred to you yet.
For added motivation, write your reasons down on a piece of paper and keep it on your fridge, bathroom mirror, or another place where you’ll see it regularly.
Seeing the list can keep the change you’re trying to make fresh in your mind. If you do happen to fall back into the habit, your list reminds you why you want to keep trying.
If you and a friend or partner both want to break an unwanted habit, try to do it together.
Say you both want to stop smoking. Dealing with cravings on your own can be tough. Quitting along with a friend won’t make the cravings go away. But they might be easier to deal with when facing them with someone else.
Make it a point to cheer each other’s successes and encourage each other through setbacks.
A friend can still offer support even if they don’t have any habits they want to change. Consider telling a trusted friend about the habit you’re trying to break. They can encourage you in times of doubt and gently remind you of your goal if they notice you slipping back into old habits.
Mindfulness can help you develop awareness around your thoughts, feelings, and actions. This practice involves simply observing impulses that relate to your habit without judging them or reacting to them.
As you become more aware of these routine behaviors and the triggers that lead to them, you may find it easier to consider other options, such as avoiding reminder cues or not acting on the urges.
Practicing mindfulness can also help you notice ways your habit affects your daily life. As you start to recognize these effects, you may feel more driven to work on changing the habit.
You might have an easier time breaking a habit if you replace the unwanted behavior with a new behavior, instead of simply trying to stop the unwanted behavior.
Say you want to stop reaching for candy when you’re hungry at work. If you simply try to avoid the candy dish, you might fall back into the habit when you can’t resist hunger. But bringing in a Tupperware of dried fruit and nuts to keep at your desk gives you another snack option.
As you repeat the new behavior, the impulse to follow the new routine develops. Eventually, after you see rewards from the new habit — more energy and less of a sugar crash — the urge to keep doing this behavior might outweigh the desire to pursue the old habit.
Replacing harmful habits, such as substance misuse, with more positive ones can have a lot of benefit. But it’s important to remember “good” habits, such as exercise, can still become excessive. Even “healthy” eating can have negative effects when taken to extremes.
Using stickers, sticky notes, or other visual reminders wherever the habit behavior happens can help you rethink the action when something triggers you.
Here are a few ideas:
- Want to break the habit of drinking soda with every meal? Try leaving small stickers on your refrigerator that you’ll see when you go to reach for a can.
- Trying to remember to turn off lights when you leave a room? Leave a note for yourself on the light switch or door.
- Want to start keeping your keys in a designated place so you stop losing them frequently? Leave a dish for your keys in the first place you’ll see it when you return home.
You can also use a smartphone for reminders. Set your alarm and add a motivating note to yourself, such as “Time to turn off the TV! :)” or “After-dinner walk — remember how good it feels!”
Breaking a habit can be challenging, though you might find some habits easier to shake than others.
“It’s very easy to slip back into old patterns, particularly when the new ones aren’t solidified yet,” said Erika Myers, LPC. “Change is hard. Remember, it took a while to build up those habits, so you won’t lose them in a day.”
Try to mentally prepare for slipups so you won’t feel guilty or discouraged if you do. Maybe you commit to jotting down three bullet points about how you felt as you were doing the habit, or do a quick breathing exercise.
Try to learn from your slipups. Be honest with yourself about what led to the setback, and consider whether changing your approach might help you stay more on track.
Accepting you’ll probably slip up a few times when trying to break a habit and coming up with a plan is one thing. Preventing feelings of frustration and failure when you do slip up is another story.
If you fall back into an old habit, you might wonder, “Can I really do this?” You might begin to doubt yourself and feel inclined to give up.
Myers recommends looking at your successes instead. Maybe you’re trying to quit smoking and you succeed for 3 days in a row. On the fourth day, you have a cigarette and spend the rest of the night feeling like a failure.
“Having a cigarette after going a few days without smoking doesn’t take away those past days,” said Myers. Remember, you can make a different choice tomorrow.
“You’re looking for movement in a particular direction rather than perfection,” Myers added. “Instead of focusing on your end goal, consider this: Anything you do that’s more of what you want is good.”
Trying to kick multiple habits in the same go? The image of a new, improved self can be a powerful motivator, especially when you first decide to change unwanted habits.
This can sometimes work. If the habits go together, you might find it easier to address them at the same time. For example, if you want to stop smoking and drinking, and you always do those two things together, quitting both at once may make the most sense.
But experts generally recommend starting small. Aim to change one habit at a time. Addressing habits in steps can also help, even if these steps seem too small or easily manageable in the beginning.
Thinking back to the soda-with-every-meal example, you could start by not drinking soda with dinner for a week. Then, bump it up to not having it with dinner or lunch the next week.
Your surroundings can sometimes have a big impact on your habits.
Maybe you’re trying to break the habit of always ordering takeout because it’s costing you too much money. But every time you go into the kitchen, you see the to-go menus hanging on your fridge. You could try replacing the menu with printouts of easy recipes you know you’ll enjoy.
Other examples include:
- leaving a journal, book, or hobby items (sketchbooks, crafts, or games) on your coffee table to encourage you to pick them up instead of scrolling through social media
- spending 10 or 15 minutes tidying up your house each evening to encourage you to keep things clutter-free
- changing up your morning walk to work so you don’t pass the cafe with the tempting, overpriced latte
Keep in mind that the people you surround yourself with are also part of your environment. Consider taking a break from spending time with those who contribute to your habit or don’t support your process of breaking one.
Breaking habits doesn’t have to be an entirely hands-on, physical process. You can practice new replacement habits mentally, too.
Imagine yourself in a triggering environment or situation, such as the morning before your performance review. How would you typically react? You might see yourself anxiously biting your nails or drumming your pen against your desk.
How could you react instead? Visualize yourself practicing deep breathing, walking to get a drink of water, sorting through old notes or files, or tidying desk drawers — anything that keeps your hands busy and helps calm you.
Practicing a different response in your mind can help it become more familiar when you face the situation in reality.
Many people find it easier to create positive changes in life when they begin from a place of wellness.
If you’re already dealing with other challenges, such as work stress, relationship troubles, or health problems, trying to break a habit can lead to more distress than the actual habit.
When breaking a habit, it’s especially important to prioritize your own wellness. This not only boosts your chances of success, but it also helps you keep functioning in the face of challenges.
Try these self-care tips:
Remember, breaking a habit can be incredibly difficult. Make sure to acknowledge how far you’ve come, and try to give yourself rewards along the way. Even small motivators, like telling yourself what a great job you’re doing, can boost your confidence and increase your drive to keep trying.
When you focus on the progress you’ve made, you’re less likely to become discouraged or engage in negative self-talk, both of which can do a number on your motivation.
“Celebrate your wins,” Erika recommended. “Maybe you aren’t ready to run a marathon, but if running a mile this week is easier than it was last week, that’s success.”
There’s a common myth that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. But where does that figure come from?
It’s likely from a study involving people who had plastic surgery. Most of them adjusted to their changed appearance within 3 weeks. That’s pretty different from actively working to break and ingrained habit.
Realistically, experts believe it takes about 10 weeks (2 to 3 months) or more to break an unwanted happen. Of course, some habits may take more or less time to break.
The amount of time it takes to break a habit depends on several things, according to Myers.
- how long you’ve had the habit
- the emotional, physical, or social needs the habit fulfills
- whether you have support or help breaking the habit
- the physical or emotional reward the habit provides
If a few weeks have passed, and you feel you haven’t made much progress, it can help to revisit your approach. But you might also consider seeking help from a mental health professional, especially for habits that are more deeply ingrained in your behavior or cause you a lot of distress
You might have success breaking some habits, such as buying lunch every day or skipping the gym, on your own, with a bit of effort and dedication.
Working through these issues alone can be tough, and a therapist or counselor can offer guidance and support.
A mental health professional can help you:
- identify changes you want to make
- explore anything blocking you from change
- identify your motivations for change
- get perspective on your progress
- learn how to counter and cope with negative self-talk
“The accountability of meeting with someone regularly can also provide structure that supports the changes you’ve made,” Myers concluded.
It might not seem like it in the moment, but over time, your new habits will become established in your daily life. Soon enough, they may even feel as natural as your old habits.
Crystal has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.